The final votes in Tuesday’s midterm election were far from counted when both sides of the fight launched their efforts to control the narrative, putting their own spin on the outcome of the election.
Republicans tried to put lipstick on the pig, declaring victory as they expanded their majority in the U.S. Senate, despite losing 34 seats in the House of Representatives and losing the governor’s mansion in seven states.
Democrats and media pundits declared the election a statement by America that it was rejecting the policies and rhetoric of President Donald Trump. “Nothing is more powerful than the voice of the American people, and they spoke out loud and clear: Donald Trump does not stand for our values, the Republican Party has failed to hold him accountable, and it’s time for bold Democratic leadership in Washington,” DNC chairman Tom Perez crowed.
Neither is really true.
As University of Tennessee professor Glenn Reynolds noted in a column for USA Today, we were promised a blue wave and what we got was more of a purple slosh.
Days and weeks before the polls opened, as Democrats became more confident that they were on the cusp of recapturing control of the House of Representatives, they talked boldly of a repudiation of the Trump presidency. Liberals have always considered Trump’s election to be illegitimate; a product of the Electoral College system that they view as flawed. And so they were eager to stamp this midterm with a favorable narrative: that America “regrets” its vote in the 2016 presidential election (that’s how the Washington Post put it on the eve of the election) and is rejecting Trump and all that he stands for.
As someone who didn’t vote for Trump, who has warned repeatedly that he is setting back the conservative cause by years and will do irreparable harm to the Republican Party, let me say this: Tuesday’s election was not an indictment of Donald J. Trump.
It’s impossible to say that Trump didn’t factor into the election, obviously. Exit polls found that a whopping 85% of voters were casting their votes with Trump in mind — which includes both those who are for the president and those who are against him. As I told a friend two months ago when he argued that the “blue wave” would instead be a “red wave,” because the party in power never loses an election when the economy is as good as America’s is at the moment, the Republicans had zero chance of maintaining control of Congress.
There was never going to be a “red wave.” The GOP was never going to keep its House majority. Too many independents and disgruntled Democrats who voted for Trump in key battlegrounds — particularly across the Midwest — have become disenchanted with the president’s rhetoric and divisive approach and they were trending back to the other side. Republicans were always going to lose this election, the economy be damned.
But let’s be honest: this was hardly a “blue wave.” If it had truly been a repudiation of Trump’s rhetoric and policies, Democrats would’ve retaken the Senate — the economy be damned. Their gains in the House would’ve been more significant. And other down-ballot gains would’ve been greater.
Tuesday’s election was much less about the repudiation of an illegitimate president who has embarrassed America (the narrative many pundits would have us believe) and much more about political norms. The party of first-term presidents traditionally fair poorly in midterm elections. It’s perhaps one part a natural trait of American politics — an innate desire for the very checks and balances that were prescribed by the founding fathers. But it’s also about the natural disdain that the opposition party feels for the president, and it’s true of every president — not just Trump.
To the average observer, who doesn’t closely follow politics and can’t remember who won the last congressional election two years ago, let alone four years ago, the Democrats’ gain of 34 seats may seem like a lot. But, on average in the modern era, the party of the president has lost 24 seats in midterm elections. When the president’s approval rating is as low as Trump’s, his party loses an average of 37 seats in the midterm.
The 34 seats the Republicans lost on Tuesday paled in comparison to the 63 seats the Democrats lost in 2010 — Barack Obama’s first midterm. If Tuesday’s election were truly a repudiation of Trump’s presidency, what did the 2010 election say about Obama?
The 2010 election said that conservatives were fired up by Obama’s liberal policies. And the tea party movement sparked an overwhelming victory for Republicans. Likewise, the 2018 election says that liberals are fired up by Trump’s conservative policies. And they responded in like fashion. Nothing more, nothing less.
So what does it mean? An optimist would say it’s good for America. A divided Congress can be a good thing. In 1994, when Bill Clinton was forced to rein in his liberal agenda after Republicans swept to control in Congress, it turned out to be a very good thing. Clinton and the GOP worked together for key reforms, and what followed was a period of prosperity for America.
But the partisan divide is much greater in Washington today, 24 years later, than it was in the mid ’90s. It’s unlikely that Trump will have the same temperament towards the Democratic House that Clinton had in the ’90s. And it’s unlikely that the Democrats will have the same temperament towards Trump that the Republican House had in the ’90s. If Democrats weaponize the House as an investigation tool in an effort to do what voters refused to do in this midterm election — repudiate Trump — then America loses. If Trump engages in petty, sophomoric partisan bickering as he is apt to do, and refuses to deploy the “art of the deal” skills he has boasted of for so long, America loses.
Consider me a pessimist, not an optimist.